Sunday, December 16, 2012

Memes of the British Atlantis

The BBC News Magazine has an article this week called New York, a graveyard for languages. No, please Doctor, don't sugar coat it!

Dr. Mark Turin looks at the linguistic economy of New York City. As a global capitol of immigration, it's home to a staggering variety of languages; some 800, according to researchers. You can see just the tip of that diversity, as Turin notes, in the many languages offered on subway signs, metrocard dispensers and night school advertisements. Lest you think New York City is a multi-lingual paradise: I have discovered, New York is not just a city where many languages live, it is also a place where languages go to die, the final destination for the last speakers of some of the planet's most critically endangered speech forms.

The unparalleled number of languages spoken here, as well as their uncertain future, makes New York a natural site of study for linguists and those interested in language preservation. Turin mentions the work of new-ish, NYC based non-profit, The Endangered Language Alliance . ELA's mission is to "further the documentation, description, maintenance, and revitalization of threatened and endangered languages, and to educate the public about the causes and consequences of language extinction."

Some languages have gone quiet in their place of birth but are still spoken here in New York City by immigrants who have brought their language with them. For example, the ELA has been working with two different languages, one a European ethnic minority language and one an Arawak (Native American) language from Central America:
'There are these communities that are completely gone in their homeland. One of them, the Gottscheers, is a community of Germanic people who were living in Slovenia, and they were isolated from the rest of the Germanic populations.' 
'They were surrounded by Slavic speakers for several hundreds of years so they really have their own variety [of language] which is now unintelligible to other German speakers.' 
The last speakers of this language have ended up in Queens, he says, and this has happened to many other communities. 
Garifuna is an Arawakan language from Honduras and Belize, but also spoken by a diaspora in the United States. 
Staff at the Endangered Language Alliance have been working with two Garifuna speakers, Loreida Guity and Alex Colon, to document not only their language but also aspects of their culture through traditional song, before these are lost without record.

This is all interesting, insofar as we've learned a bit about the hidden linguistic richness of New York City and the admirable work of the ELA. But as for analysis, the BBC is asleep at the wheel.

"But why do languages die?" Dr. Turin asks. Good question. After all, it's not just New York City which is increasing in spoken languages:
A recent Census Bureau report notes that in the United States, the number of people speaking a language other than English at home increased by 140% over the last 30 years, with at least 303 languages recorded in this category.
And as to why languages die, Dr. Turin offers this:

Communities can be wiped out through wars, disease or natural disasters, and take their languages with them when they go.
More commonly, though, people transition out of one mother tongue into another, either by choice or under duress, a process that linguists refer to as language shift.

OK. As a friend said to me the other night, heroyf bulltsushitn. [Stop bullshitting]

How can you write an article about multilingualism, linguistic preservation, and national identity in the United States and not mention the extreme currents of nativism at play? The places where languages other than English (and I suspect this largely means Spanish) are increasing are the places where you find, angry, armed movements looking to make English the official language and outlaw the use of any language other than English. I wish I was kidding about this.

This is about American-style capitalism, son. All those immigrants aren't coming here because America gives a shit about their language and folkways. They're here for 'economic opportunities' and because they're cheap labor which, if here illegally, can be exploited even more cheaply and with less regard for any kind of human dignity. Speak English, become a citizen, then maybe we'll pay lip service to celebrating your 'ethnic heritage.'

You cannot extricate questions of language survival from those of nationalism and politics. I mean, wigga please. It's no accident that Americans lead the world in monolingualism. Americans are PROUD of it. Monolingualism is an American value and has been for a very long time.

Ugh. And we haven't even gotten to the dumb Yiddish parts.

Somehow, an article about the endangered languages in New York City has to do with Yiddish, like, half the article goes into a long rehearsal of the 'facts' about the rise and fall of Yiddish in New York. Again, with no awareness or recognition of the violence of Americanization as a factor in the loss of Yiddish within one or two generations of immigration (which was actually a better record than most other immigrant languages.) Nope, Jews chose to flee to the suburbs and forgot to pack their Yiddish books. Oops!

Also, Yiddish is being revived thanks to the National Yiddish Book Center.

Also, the decades long existence of thriving Hasidish Yiddish newspapers may not be mentioned because it interferes with our 'death/revival' narrative.


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